The plenary session at the Society of Civil War Historians annual meeting kicked off with three scholars talking about their work in the public sphere. A great opening to discuss historians in public, but the audience bounced from classroom to Eric Foner to the classroom to Facebook engagement to the classroom to Reconstruction scholarship. I sense that academics throw around the term “public history” a lot, but what they’re thinking is “public intellectual.” Only Chris Barr, a ranger at Chickamauga stood up to suggest that most people encounter the Civil War at museums and historic sites–hinting at professions and institutions already engaged in the work and beyond the scope of that evening’s conversation.
However, many Civil War museums are not doing that work so well. This report from WUNC demonstrated that public dialog about the Civil War is complex and inextricable from contemporary cultural battles. (The Civil War and HB#2… sound familiar?) The site manager at Bennett Place State Historic Site was not up to the task and made some…um…unfortunate comments. (Seriously, you should go look for yourself.)
At the SCWH session on material culture, Joan Cashin wondered why historians didn’t engage in the study of things more. An audience member suggested that academics avoid material culture because they want to distance themselves from reenactors and other yahoos. Nailed it. I agree completely. The consequence is that the Grand Blue and Gray Ball will continue to be the outward face of the Civil War community while historians attempt to be public intellectuals in a conversation they’re not actually engaged in.
First. The SCWH needs a session on Civil War interpretation at museums and historic sites that address the realities of non-profit management, bureaucratic compliance, and audience research and other museum studies literature.
Second. Historians should add to their public intellectual repertoire and go to the nearest historic site or museum, join the board of directors, and help those places figure out better ways to talk about the Civil War.